This summer, the oldest founding member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, GE, made very modern waves when it announced it would be creating the world’s largest 3-D printer . ‘ATLAS’, will be a laser based powder metal printer with a build volume of 1.0 m3. To put that in perspective, the current record holder, Concept Laser’s XLine 2000R, has a build volume that is 6.25x smaller at 0.16 m3. A machine of this size opens the door for GE to produce even higher value components for its aviation business and cements the company as a leading player in additive manufacturing . Additive manufacturing (equivalently referred to as 3-D printing), is a collection of technologies and methods that are capable of building components by depositing layers of material and melting or adhering them together . This contrasts with traditional, subtractive, methods which achieve desired geometries by removing material.
As a company, GE has made additive a core component of its industrial strategy stating that it believes it will usher in a transformative age of expanded product design capability, flexibility, and speed, as well as improve service delivery and asset management. Indeed, President and CEO of GE Aviation David Joyce recently stated “Additive changes…the paradigm between the cost of manufacturing and the complexity of design. Design is going to optimize for performance and productivity with new and better cost entitlements and faster cycles.” This strategy comes as no surprise, as industry analysts have been extolling benefits such as low/zero inventory costs, increased profitability within low-volume/high-value products, hyper customization, reduced product life-cycles, and lack of re-tooling costs since 2012.
If You Print It, They Will Come
In a prime example of putting your money where your mouth is, GE acquired competitors Concept Laser (German) and Arcam AB (Swedish) to jump-start its industrial printer capability . These acquisitions, which led to the rapid development of ATLAS, will allow the company to build large jet engine and aircraft structural components not previously possible before. GE will also be testing a new version of its ATP turboprop engine which will have 1/3 of its components 3-D printed, reducing 855 parts down to 12, lowering weight and thus fuel consumption why a whopping 20% and lasting 1000 hours more between overhauls.
GE’s longer terms goals are certainly much greater than just fuel nozzles and jet engines. Now ex-CEO Jeff Immelt believes that the total additive market resides around $75 Billion and fairly new GE Additive business will reach $1 Billion by 2020. The Arcam and Concept laser acquisitions really serve to stabilize their industrial base so they can pursue opportunities in healthcare, automotive, oil & gas, and power. GE Additive also recently opened the Additive Training Center(ATC) near Cincinnati (along with a similar facility near Pittsburgh). A 130,000 ft2 facility that holds 30 metal 3-D printing machines and hosts 3-D printing “boot-camps” where engineers from all parts of the business can come and learn how to design for additive manufacturing . The long-term goal of this facility is to shift the design culture within GE’s business to better take advantage of the new technology.
Layering Up the Challenges
One aspect of the additives space that GE is not targeting however is the spare parts market. Now a $400 Billion business, the aviation spare parts business is bereft with inefficiencies and opportunity that would benefit from 3-D Printing. Currently, almost 10% of the spare parts stock of most MROs is considered obsolete or sunk and the industry is notorious for long lead times. Today, 30% of airlines and MROs have said they are looking to 3-D print their spare parts and in 10 years German parts suppliers will be spending $3 Billion in printing their inventory . GE’s current strategy keeps the company is its place as an OEM (traditionally a low margin game, ~10%) and fails to map its entrance in the spares parts business (traditionally a high margin game, 20%-25%). GE must also not allow culture and design heritage to get in the way of its progress. While the ATC is a necessary step forward, it might not do enough to cement the change necessary for its engineering communities to stray from decades of design history.
As the company extrudes itself forward into the future, what strategy should it use in entering and disrupting the spare parts industry? Does it make sense for GE to do so?
As its engineers shift a new layer of culture and design philosophy over decades of hardened (and outdated) standards, how should GE approach workforce retraining to maximize the potential of 3-D printing? Is the ATC enough on its own? Should GE increase its 3-D printing training opportunities?
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